synthroid nausea all day

Environmetalist: The Pacific Northwest

That's the spirit: horse

It’d been awhile. The last “ENVIRONMETALIST” odyssey had been way back in April, teaming the Big Four in Indio with a smattering of unofficial wildflower hunts. When, almost half a year later, the opportunity arose to be the merch bitch for Mendozza on their tour to support their new, self-titled release, it seemed like a slap in the face of Experience to stay put in San Francisco.

But the trip was destined to be more than selling T-shirts and trying to scrounge as many free drink tickets as possible. About a month previous, I’d discovered a graduate program up in Bellingham, and since the band’s last show was in Seattle, it only made sense to make a quick Greyhound scamper a couple hours north to check out a potential educational opportunity. Since over half of the program takes place in a national park, visiting the campus would mean some trail time after sitting in a cold van from Oakland to Seattle. And then, the icing on the environmetalist cake? Finding out High on Fire was playing in Bellingham the day after I’d intended to leave. Adventure extended.

Heading northward out of the City reminded me that it is indeed the fall season, and in other, more inland and colder parts of the Northern Hemisphere the leaves of deciduous trees were undergoing their famous transition. All the way up Interstate-5, golds, scarlets, and vermillions peaked out from the stubborn evergreens, bright bursts amidst the black-green ribbon of conifers disguising the clear-cuts lurking lonely behind them. Because my tree ID knowledge pretty much only extends to coastal California natives and Mediterranean species common in San Francisco, I didn’t even try to name any of the tree species in Oregon and Washington. Besides, too little open sky makes me a tad claustrophobic and long instead for the dry chaparral even if this suffocation feeling is prompted by an abundance of plants, which by all means, you think I’d be like a pig in shit, right? I almost agree with Cosmo, who recalled in an email during my trip: “I once drove through Oregon, and it was the longest drive of my life other than my drive through Montana. That was because Oregon was all trees. I know that breaks your heart, but it was the truth. Oregon was endless trees.” Dude, it doesn’t break my heart, I totally get it, though I’m sure we’d both feel differently being on the trail amidst said trees as opposed to zooming up the concrete artery in a car. (It also needs to be emphasized that the Pacific Northwest is NOT endless trees. Check out some problems in the forests, courtesy of The Oregonian, here.)

Get it? Get it.

Off the freeway, same fallen story: The sidewalks in Eugene were buried four-inches deep in copper and peach-colored leaf litter. But it was cold — which is the weather that prompted the leaves to change hue, senesce, and fall in the first place — and my hands weren’t about to leave

Being a poser with Bina from Mendozza and Mike from Yob and a full, delicious espresso stout.

my pockets for the camera. They almost emerged to wrap around a fresh pint or five of Ninkasi ale at their brewery near downtown. This, unfortunately, didn’t happen. But I saw their beers on tap and on store shelves all over the Pacific Northwest, including their seasonal dark double alt, Sleigh’r (read Phyte Club’s review from last year).

At Mendozza’s show at the Oak Street Speakeasy, though, I did have a delicious beer called Overcast Espresso Stout, made by Eugene’s Oakshire Brewing. A super smooth oatmeal stout, rich and black, it was the best of both worlds, the “hippie speedball” of beer and caffeine. Mike Scheidt, the vocalist and guitarist of YOB, was rocking out to the end, supporting the local music scene.  The Obelisk ran a long interview with him earlier in the year. The intro praises Scheidt in ways that I, too, understood from our brief interaction at the show: “The guitarist’s openness, honesty and genuine nature is apparent in his every answer, and his discussion late in the conversation of the nature of ambition and how it relates to YOB presents an awareness of perspective that, much like his musical approach, is entirely his own.”

I'm a bark-a-holic.

There was one other alcohol-based elixir that characterized my days in Oregon: Planetary Herbals Old Indian Wild Cherry Bark Syrup. This stuff saved my ass and my lungs, which got filled with crud after our first night sleeping in the van under clouds of breath-condensation at a rest stop near Redding. Available at most health food stores, this medicine is the only remedy I’ve found so far to mellow out my bronchial tantrums. I highly recommend the stuff. I’d take swigs off the bottle every couple hours or so until it was all gone, along with the salty green crud, a few days later. The main ingredient is wild cherry bark, or Prunus serotina, a woody plant native to the eastern half of the United States and the mountains of Mexico and Guatemala. One of its principal constituents is scopoletin, which has an anti-constrictive effect that makes breathing easy again and unaccompanied by buckets of phlegm. According to Mountain Rose Herbs, the bark is about 1/2% hydrogen cyanide — a very poisonous chemical — which is just enough to nail the coughing and to relax the bronchial tubes without producing any other freaky physiological effects.

Mendozza flew into and quickly out of rainy Portland. The last show of the two-week West Coast tour was at the Funhouse in Seattle, or the “Unfunhouse”, as we’d taken to endearingly calling it. This venue was right underneath the glow of the Space Needle. Though I have no excessively debaucherous tales to report (sorry, Metalcakes!), the story’s about to get more nature-y.

Aside from seeing Mendozza for the sixth time, this drawing "backstage" was the most fun thing about Seattle's Funhouse.

Don't drink to forget your bar tab.

Pissy, pissy. What about a GOOD Sabbath rip-off band? As seen on the bathroom door at the Funhouse.

After living on herbal cough syrup for the past three days, I was excited to start Part II of my Pacific Northwest explorations. In

all of these knobs and buttons do something to the music. don't ask me what.

Seattle I spent an afternoon in a recording studio at the Art Institute where one of my oldest friends is learning how to engineer and mix music. And to put in my “It’s the small things that

a representative of a nearby forest ecosystem, $14.99/pound (or something....)

make me happy” file, we saw some chanterelles in a fancy grocery store that still had needles and twigs stuck to them. Food with detritus on it = gourmet.

I headed to Bellingham. Though I was staring out the Greyhound window with my chin in my hand, reminiscent of Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” video, I realized I hadn’t seen a million faces, nor personally rocked them all, or any of them, really. Nevertheless, I was excited to be solo and nearing my one destination that was wholly new to me. Supposedly, the college town of Bellingham has the lowest average sunshine amount of any city in the U.S. What this could mean for my botanical studies and serotonin levels, were I to move there for school, is a little daunting. The feel of the town was similar to Arcata but less hippie and less charming, though I’m not attempting to necessarily associate the two. My first impression was that people were super, easily friendly. All of Washington had this vibe, actually. Lots of head nods with random people; I didn’t miss the “I will look anywhere but make eye contact with you” weird feeling of fear and insecurity, or maybe just due to psychic-vampire overload, that often pervades the too-cool sidewalks of San Francisco.

Though it is based at Western Washington University in Bellingham, over half the graduate program I was scoping out takes place a two-hour drive southeast, tucked into the federally-protected mountains of North Cascades National Park. I have never seen any opportunity in higher academia even remotely as cool as this one. As part of getting a Masters in Environmental Education, students live at the North Cascades

Kerouac's famous fire lookout *from National Geographic*

Institute, taking field classes in cultural and natural history, learning how to develop an outdoor-based curriculum, and studying the ins-and-outs of non-profit management. Which is a perfect combination if, say, you have dreams of running your own environmental education center, or an environmental education center/recording studio and underground heavy metal club. Students get a ton of experience through teaching Mountain School, which is basically a three-day camp for fifth graders teaching them about ecology and stewardship. Grad students get to hang out with park rangers, and the occasional visiting nature writer (this Park is, after all, where Jack Kerouac was a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in 1965. Read that one? He did exactly what I would do:

the classrooms at the Institute are made of a lot of reclaimed wood, including flooring from an old high school gymnasium

Misanthropically yearn for solitude, set up house, get scared of wildlife and drink all his wine rations too immediately, and not really get much writing done.).

Getting to live in and learn about a new ecosystem is one of the most attractive aspects, for me, about possibly doing this program. The North Cascades! — new conifers, unfamiliar herbacious plants, and a ton of moss fuzzying up every conceivable organic surface with a soft green beard. And professionally, it seems designed for me personally, for unless I start making money off Phyte Club (which isn’t necessarily the intention, really), having more training and thus potential paid jobs within the environmental education field needs to happen. But I am a California girl to the max, dude, and being in the freezing cold and dark mountains is also one of my biggest hesitations. I wonder why this program can’t be somewhere crispy and open, like the Channel Islands or, god, even somewhere gross but relatively close to the Bay Area, like Fresno.

So that’s the dilemma, of sorts. But the nature in the North Cascades is undeniably beautiful. While I was there, the landscape was all green and gold, and getting a little white. Perhaps I should take a lesson from the fungi and the moss, who can survive so well in the cold? Personal biomimicry?

If one were inclined, what would be the highlighted happening in this photo? Leaf color and decomposition? Branch growth and leaf scars? Fern reproduction? You have the power to decide.

butterscotch candies

butterscotch candies

butterscotch candies

this mushroom is way more burly than I am.

Occupy a moss sporophyte! Remember that slogan, I think from WTO protest days: "The whole world is watching!"?

Can it really be that much warmer beneath this mushroom cap that the snow melts?

One more story from my campus visit. We journeyed from the mountains to Bellingham to do some ecological restoration with a couple of elementary school groups. This is an integral part of Mountain School — the grad students-now-teachers make sure to follow-up the National Park experience with a stewardship activity in the kids’ own community, in order to emphasize that “nature” isn’t just something pristine or far away, out of sight and mind, only valid on vacation. We were in a portion of a city park that was being overtaken by invasive blackberry and non-native hawthorne. We wanted to replace these species with Washington locals: cedar, spruce, and, for the edge and understory, salal (Gaultheria shallon). It was cold and rainy, and one of the nine-year-old girls was in sandals (this is something I would do…..). But they were, for the most part, totally into it. I had to laugh when one group wanted to be called “TNT” and started going into the AC/DC song. Then another kid said, “No, let’s be “Ace of Spades”! Are these all the children of metalheads?! Enviro ed, sign me up! Channeling Lemmy during habitat restoration with fifth graders!

Back on my own again in Bellingham, it was finally time for the most familiar piece of the trip, yet also the part which I’d been most anticipating. About a week before leaving Haight Street, I’d been messing around on Kill that Cat’s site, which

high

includes links to various tour schedules. Alas, High on Fire was playing in Bellingham right when I was going to be there! Holy shit — what good fortune, especially considering their last show in Oakland in August was so packed and sticky it was like a rainforest watered by metaldude sweat and overgrown with lianas of East Bay dreads. Feeling rather prissy and entitled to the front, I couldn’t really hang.

But this show was at a place called The Shakedown. It wasn’t a dive nor just a metal venue, but seemed to hold the fort in Bellingham as the small-to-med-sized club for small-to-med-sized bands. I didn’t pay as much attention to the opening bands, Torero and Indian, as one who proposes to write about music should. Instead, I’d pound a beer from the sweet bartender, then head out into the freezing night and speed-walk laps around the downtown, making sure my wrist stamp was still there to ensure my gratuitous in-and-out privileges. I was super stoked The Shakedown had Odin Brewery’s (“The most adventurous microbrewery in America”) “Odin’s Gift” ale on tap. This beer is brewed with juniper berries, which contain vitamin C and are reputedly good for fighting colds, which means I

Odin's Gift, on the shelf next to a Kolsch-style called Freya's Gold. I'm in Norse beer-love.

probably should’ve had more than one. Though the beer used to be called a “ruby ale”, as of August, Portland, OR, heavyweights McMenamins Corp. informed Odin that they have this term trademarked, and must desist from also using it. Thus, Odin now has to come up with some other “red” moniker. “Crimson like the blood of Viking warriors Ale” perhaps? I saw this beer earlier at the grocery store, but realized that trying to taste and subsequently review it with a sinus infection — the sickness was cured from my lungs (thank you, wild cherry bark!) but had moved up behind my eyebrows — would be ridiculous. So, I only drank a pint. What my compromised tastebuds could sense, though, was a refreshing, medium-bodied beer, slightly zingy from the juniper berries. I would love find this RUBY ALE again and give it the review it deserves, but it is only available in Washington. Props to Odin Brewery, as well, for having this brief but great Norse Mythology Primer on their site.

In between beers and dark wanderings, I was happy to get the lowdown on High on Fire’s upcoming album. According to Matt Pike, their lead vocalist and guitarist, they’ve written about half of it so far, and after the holidays the band is going to record in Salem, Massachusetts. Perhaps they were inspired by the story of ergot poisoning causing LSD-style hallucinations and possibly the Salem Witch Trials. Or not: More likely they’re recording at Godcity Recording Studio, where Kurt Ballou, guitarist for Converge, mans the production, engineering, and mastering.

a not-black lotus: Nelumo lutea

Black Lotus, broken up black metal

This sixth album should be released, Pike said, next spring, probably in May. After he plays the All Tomorrow’s Parties show in England with Sleep, it’ll be time for a summer tour to support the new album. As for this one’s theme, it’ll have to be big, considering it’s following in the serpentine slither of Snakes for the Divine (E1, 2010), which Pike was quoted several times (including on MTV) as saying was largely lyrically built around the David Icke-ian theories of Adam and Eve and reptilian DNA. Pike went off about the new album, and I’m sorry to say I didn’t have a little tape recorder on me. He started weaving a tale of the Stygians and the black lotus, which was the part I latched onto, of course. Nelumbo nigra! Botanically, there exists no such plant, actually. But “Black Lotus” was a black metal band from Victoria that split up in 2008, and is a brewery in Detroit (with a beer called “Fuckin’ A Apricot Wheat”), and is a now-defunct Grecian record label that once had a bunch

Astarte, once on Black Lotus

the Black Lotus card

of metal bands, including the all-lady Astarte. It is also the most powerful card ever made in the game of Magic: The Gathering, which seems a little too D & D for HoF’s intentions.

However, I think I found what Pike was referring to, via a weird little website about Robert E. Howard, his fantasy novel The Hour of the Dragon (Gnome Press, 1950), and, yeah, Dungeons and Dragons. According to this site, black lotus pollen is deadly and provokes nightmares, but the dark wizards of the evil kingdom of Stygia learned how to harness its properties that can restore magical powers. I always had a feeling those HoF dudes were into ethnobotany.

As for the show, it was lacking, for the first half at least. I do always appreciate that they consistently play a good chunk of songs from their first two or three albums as well as their more recent ones. It took a while for them to get in time with each other at the beginning of several songs, and Pike had to rush over to his pedals on a couple occasions to “Oh shit!” stomp them. This wasn’t horrible, just a bummer to watch. It was the heavy and loud I love and expect, but some nights are just a little off, and this was one of those. And is it just me, or does it seem that since Death is this Communion (Relapse, 2007) came out, a lot more bro-brahs are at shows and acting like it’s the Superbowl or something? I mean, I can’t claim to have been paying attention from day one, when The Art of Self-Defense (Tee Pee, 2001) was HoF’s only release, and it’s great if more people are moved by good music. Crowd chaos is nothing to complain about if one likes this genre, especially if you’re a brat like me and plant oneself in the midst of the throng with double-fisted beers to prevent mid-set dehydration. But something, for example, about the anthemic “Rumors of War” pounded out live just always feels like a frat party.

the power-restorative effects of Black Lotus *http://hyboria.xoth.net/sorcery/black_lotus.htm*

Perhaps the next environmetalist rampage will involve seeking the elusive black lotus. Perhaps in a year or so, Phyte Club will be writing a lot more about Pacific Northwest flora, peaking out of the snow. Perhaps Odin’s Gift will make it down to Cali one of these days. So many mysteries, prompting me to leave you with this quote from Ken Kesey, of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Signet, 1963) and Merry Prankster fame. I recently came across it in the book, Nature and the Human Soul (New World Library, 2008), by Bill Plotkin:

“The job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery, plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.”

girl with tree bark in hair seeks Mystery. But, not really. For once Mystery is sought and attained, what's left, really?

This trip is done, but another’s begun: As you read this — if you’ve made it to this long-winded point, congrats! — I’m in Costa Rica. Hopefully I’m taking tons of photos of exotic and luscious flowers, without getting accosted by any one of the countries’ 17 species of venomous snakes. Maybe I’ll find some underground Costa Rican metal bands, and a local ale. Colorful jungle posts to follow.

A well-edited clip of one of two Mendozza shows at Eli’s in early November:

I couldn’t help it. The girl with the drum sticks at 2:12 never fails to capture my heart (zebra-striped lycra leggings and a man-o-tard, on the other hand, don’t, ever):

 

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Cassiope, precious

There are lots of beautiful wildflowers along the John Muir Trail. It’s a wilderness that requires a permit for humans to enter, and there was heavy duty snowfall into mid-June this year. So of course there were still blossoms aplenty even into mid-September. But the award for the cutest flower easily goes to Cassiope mertensiana, commonly called white heather. It even has a cute name, borrowed from the not-very-cute mythological tale of Queen Cassiopeia.

Guuuhhhhh, ....so pretty. *photo by Don McCrimmon*

Check out its little bell-shaped flowers, hanging down all shy-like and glowing white and virginal, the upturned scalloped edge, ceaselessly flirty. They were only the size of a pea (and some, smaller), lining the banks of tiny, snow-fed streams flowing freely at almost 10,000 feet. And are the rose red peduncles (fancy term for a stem bearing a solitary flower) and dainty sepals not the most charming examples of floral anatomy maybe ever?

Cassiope was reputedly the favorite high country wildflower of the man himself, John Muir. Though I didn’t find any reference to this species in The Wild Muir, a compilation of 22 of Muir’s most gnar-gnar adventures, I was instead struck by this passage, once again forcing me to pine for the wilderness rather than the “pagan slavery [that's] the boasted freedom of the town”. Those damn nature writers, putting the routine in harsh perspective every time:

“Tell what you will of the benefactions of city civilization, of the sweet security of streets – all as part of the natural upgrowth of man towards the high destiny we hear so much of. I know that our bodies were made to thrive only in pure air, and the scenes in which pure air is found. If the death exhalation that brood the broad towns in which we so fondly compact ourselves were made visible, we should flee as from a plague. All are more or less sick; there is not a perfectly sane man in San Francisco.

“Go now and then for fresh life – if most of humanity must go through this town stage of development – just as divers hold their breath and come ever and anon to the surface to breathe…Go whether or not you have faith…Form parties, if you must be social, to go to the snow-flowers in winter, to sun-flowers in summer…Anyway, go up and away for life; be fleet!

“I know some will heed the warning. Most will not, so full of pagan slavery is the boasted freedom of the town, and those who need rest and clean snow and sky the most will be the last to move.”

(Emphasis my own, as I live in San Francisco and, yearning for somewhere with a little more integrity, have been feeling mildly unsane.)

One thing that was evident and encouraging along the whole trail was how once you’ve had enough in-the-field experience IDing flowers, you can often figure out an unknown species’ identity at least down to the family level, if not the genus. Taxonomic classification is based on the reproductive parts. For example, with Cassiope, it was obvious it was an Ericaceae, as its flowers were reminiscent of madrone (Arbutus menziesii), strawberry tree (Arbutus unedo), and manzanita (Arctostaphylos sp.) blossoms. As Bay Area botanist Glenn Keator puts in in his book, California Plant Families, “Those species with bell- or urn-shaped flowers are unlikely to be confused with aything else.” A personalized, rough, un-Jepsoned identification starts becoming second nature, further solidifying a relationship with the natural realm. Pretty soon you’re on a first name basis with most of the species around you. Is this merely a human attempt to categorize? Sure. But it the same as in the social world — you tend to shake hands as an initiatory first step before you attempt to understand another’s soul.

ringing a petite waterfall, with grand snowy mountains of Yosemite in the background *photo by Don McCrimmon*

Heed Muir’s warning.

 

 

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Drunk and on Fire in the Mission!

This block can be so ugly. 17th Street, between Folsom and Shotwell? The north side is a parking lot, the south, a mortuary. Death and more death. Westward leads into a grungy block or so before the seething humanity of Mission Street, and east travels through grey industrialness and cracked out hookers toward Potrero Hill. When I’m feeling in love with the City, the scene is endearing. When feeling less than, it’s not.

Ceiba speciosa: Giving Shotwell extra flair

So how surprised was I, in the middle of November, to brake to a halt because of a fucking gorgeous street tree – three or four of them, actually, and maybe even more – sparkling up the block? Like an outrageously fashionable tranny, Ceiba speciosa (formerly Chorisa speciosa) takes to the sidewalk and skies without so much a blush. The rosy blooms were so numerous to be almost uncountable, practically a solid swath of pink across the dull day, reminiscent of the Prunus cerasifera that will be freaking out in just a couple months (the flowering of street trees is a lovely way to track one’s year…..).  It makes sense that the species name, speciosa, means “showy” or “splendid”.

The common name is “silk floss tree,” derived from the cotton-like material inside the eventual eight-inch-long seedpods. There were no fruits on these trees at Shotwell and 17th, but there are some nice photos of them at the blog, Exploring the World of Trees. In their native habitat, the South American tropics and subtropics, C. speciosa flowers in the spring, between February and May. Thus here, a hemisphere away, November marks the tail end of its flowering. If there’s a pollinator around these parts, the fruits should be developing within a month or so.

The flowers are about three inches wide, with five thick, almost plastic-y petals. Part of the big Malvaceae (mallow) family, with membership in the subfamily Bombacaceae, this species’ botanical cousins include the baobab tree and Hibiscus and Lavatera species. As the above photo demonstrates, the tree is deciduous, loosing its hand-shaped leaves once making babies becomes more important than making food.

a developing fruit, stigma still attached

I prefer the other common name: palo borracho, which translates to “drunken stick”. According to the blog, Beetles in the Bush, this moniker refers to the pot-bellied trunk with narrowed base, supposedly lending the tree the shape of a wine bottle. I didn’t capture this affect on the camera, but it simply makes me think of beer bellies — a common affliction of the heavy metalist — not so much the vino. In the related realm of intoxication, C. speciosa is sometimes used in good ol’ ayahuasca smoothies as a companion to the trippy vine.

Initially, I was having a hard time snapping good photos. I almost grabbed one of the horizontal branches in attempt to pull myself up and get a closer view. Good thing I looked before I leapt. The trunk and branches were covered in half-inch pokey things (not sure if, botanically, they’d be referred to as thorns, prickles, or spikes. It all depends on their relationship with the epidermis, which I couldn’t determine by sight alone). These serve not only as defense but to store water during drought.

And speaking of 17th Street, don’t forget to go buy the new Hammers of Misfortune album.

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Consume Rhymes with Doom

Visualize, in your best meditative trance, your home filled with all the commodities you consume everyday, as if those convenient collections euphemized as “landfills” did not exist. And not just the products themselves, but also the packaging that once so lovingly enveloped them, as well as the emissions, probably toxic, that were created in their making and transport. Martha Stewart would not approve of such a trashy mess in the living room, but go ahead, visualize it anyway, it’s okay.

Increasingly, I imagine what my new decor would look like (not to mention, smell like), and also what I could find in the homes of my fellow overconsuming Americans. I think of this as I wait at the bus stop, smelling the endless parade of SUVs race by, and picture a room choked with carbon monoxide. I think of this when I’m in line at the coffeeshop, watching disposable cup after disposable cup laid to rest in the trash can and wonder if they would be tossed there if their brief owners had to treaure them forever on the mantle. I think about this even when — blasphemy! — I see Environmental Studies majors sipping the organic bilbo-ginkgo-ginsing-tangerine juice from its small, individual plastic container. (Yes, I know these are recyclable, but didn’t “reduce” and “reuse” come first?). And I think about this when I do these things too.

Surprise! All this shit is kept in our home, though it is now far far away, safe in the landfill, and is no longer cluttering our immediate space. We are all litterbugs on a massive scale, regardless of organized garbage collection that makes us feel socially-responsible because we didn’t throw our trash in the backyard creek.

Consider before consuming. It’s time to clean house.

*     *     *

The context? I wrote this for a “Rant and Rave” assignment just over ten years ago(!) in my “Environmental Action Through Writing” class at UC Santa Cruz. Resource use and environmental ethics were obviously what I was studying at the time, but the a-ha moment that spawned this mellow diatribe was while in line for the amazing chai at Felton’s White Raven Coffee and Tea, just watching the trash can fill with single-use paper coffee cups. It was a five-second observation that not only transformed my worldview but just about every choice made from then on.

The context today? Frustration and a probably naive disbelief: being called a hoarder for washing and reusing plastic bags and containers; watching a good, smart friend fling gum out the car window with a, “What? I do it all the time!” response, or express confusion that I’ve used the same razor with refillable cartridges for years, or wonder why I don’t think tiny plastic bottles of water from thousands of miles away are a good idea even if 100 percent of the profits go to poor communities; trying not to laugh when a self-described “very aware” guy from Marin has a huge truck littered with disposable Peet’s Coffee cups and a cupboard full of reusable to-go mugs (just goes to show that doing a ton a the best acid out there doesn’t necessarily mean you’re that tuned in….).

If anyone has a cave they can offer me for at least a vay-cay, if not permanent residence, I always make my rent on time. In the meantime, check out this 2007 article from the San Francisco Chronicle about a guy who did indeed keep all his garbage in his living room for a year to make a point about our trashy consumption habits, and keep the faith through old Nirvana: this video’s over two years before Nevermind, Dave Grohl, and “the year punk broke” (note: they were a brief foursome!):

And hey, thanks everybody for comin’, it’s been nice.

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Sweet and Boggy: Myrica Ale

How could one pass up an opportunity to drink a beer with “bog myrtle” as a key ingredient? Images of humus-y stench and putrid strings of anaerobically semi-decomposed muck pair so well with a refreshing pint, right? Sort of like cigarettes?

Myrica gale’s other common name, “sweet gale” is a bit more immediately palpable, but regardless, Gageleer Sweet Gale Ale is distinct for its use of an herbal shrub of the moist heath lands of Belgium called myrica. Like all gruits, or beers that are bittered with herbs other than hops, this one enjoyed its height in popularity in the medieval days. According to gruitale.com, though, myrica was used in Europe as an ingredient in beer throughout World War II, and was one of the most common herbs in brewing in Norway, where it was such a significant ingredient in ale that it could be used as a substitute for money to pay taxes and “is mentioned in the 1300s in Norwegian legal proclamations stating that ‘rent for farms could be paid in bog myrtle, and that moors where bog myrtle could be gathered belonged to the farms in the same way as the right coast-lines and fishing waters.’” This plant’s status as currency reminds me of a little weed called Cannabis sativa (maybe you’ve heard of it?), in these modern times.

Botanically, Myrica gale is a deciduous shrub (i.e. it loses its leaves) growing up to six feet tall, with oblanceolate (shaped like an upside-down, stretched out teardrop), resinous leaves. Its flowers are hanging catkins that form nut cones. The male and female flowers are found on separate plants, a characteristic known as “dioecious” (“two households”). The fresh or newly dried branches, nut cones, and leaves can be used in the brewing process.

Myrica reportedly lends an ale narcotic and stupefying properties, upping the intoxication ante even more than just with “normal” beer. I can’t comment on this — I fell asleep.

Brewery: Gageleer, from the Campine region of Belgium

Found (in San Francisco): Healthy Spirits, a fascinating collection of international and hard-to-get beers, located at 15th. Be prepared to spend a lot of money. Street and Castro

Alcohol by volume (ABV): 7.5%

Color: Golden orange

Style: Gruit

Malt: Barley

Hops: Varietal unknown. Though this ale is bittered with herbs in the style of a medieval gruit, hops are used as well.

Body: Light-medium

Head: Pale cream

Aroma: Flowery, tart, tangerine

And finally, flavor: Sweet gale ale is initially sweet, with sugars tingling the front of the tongue. Mid-sip, mid-tongue, this morphs into a faint citrus. Supposedly, according to gruitale.com, myrica lends a “strong thirst-quenching mouth feel, ” a quality I never recognized but perhaps I was being seduced by its narcotic and stupefying effects. It’s never too boozy, but the finish is, well, boggy, making you want to immediately take another swig to cover this flavor. However, this flavor progression grows on you. Seriously. When I started drinking the small bottle (only 11.6 fl. oz., which is actually perfect since it’s high in alcohol and not a beer you want to pound), it was reminiscent of an Orange Crush with a dirt finish, in a good way. By the end, the flavor became lighter and less earthy, like flitting through meadows instead of slogging through the Bog of Eternal Stench.

Ah, the hilarity of anaerobic decomposition:

 

 

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A Mooch on the Muir Trail

Down one switchback after another. I was a bit brokenhearted. Spiritually suffering. We had turned off the John Muir Trail – our lifeline for the past ten days — about a quarter mile back. The junction marked the coming end, back to “civilization” (had

were we as good as Pterospora andromedea at stealing food, our packs would've been about 20lbs. lighter. *photo by Don McCrimmon*

it become any more civilized since we’d been gone, I wondered? Doubt it.). Almost time to get my act together on a different, less maintained and less obvious path. Though I was trying hard to enjoy the woodsy and dusty present, I was filled with premature mourning. Poor, dirty me.

Then my faithful hiking partner, ever in the lead, said something like, “Isn’t that the plant you wanted to see?” pointing to an 18-inch tall, faded crimson stalk. Our packs were off before the two “fuck yeah!” syllables had left my mouth.

little jingle bell fruits forming post-flower

Add it to the list: Pteropspora andromedea, commonly known as “pinedrops”. It’s a parasite!

Three other non-photosynthetic plants have been gushed about in past Phyte Club posts:

I’m not going to detail here the symbiotic threesome that Pteropspora andromedea is involved in with underground fungus and neighboring pines. Check out the Monotropa uniflora or the Sarcodes sanguinea posts for that, though the M. uniflora one explains it better, I think. Like both of these species, pinedrops is in the Ericaceae, or heath, family (and was formerly classified as Monotropaceae, which is now the subfam Monotropoidiae). Instead, it’s time for a tiny lesson in what isn’t there: chlorophyll.

Just an aside, though, for the record: I hear “mutualism” and “symbiosis” often used interchangeably to ostensibly explain the same ecological relationship between species: helping each other. And this is the meaning of mutualism, that two species live in close relationship and both gain from the interaction. Symbiosis, however, simply refers to two species living in close relationship (“sym”=together, “bio”=life). Thus, it can describe a relationship that’s mutualistic, commensalistic (benefits one species, has a neutral affect on the other), or, what we care about here, parasitic (benefits one species, isn’t so awesome for the other).

For some reason my parents taught me the word “chlorophyll” when I was three, setting me up, I suppose, for a love affair with the plant realm. But what is chlorophyll – if not just a fun word to say,  invoking images of a rainbow solely of greens, from absinthe to moss at dusk – and why do we need it? Chlorophyll is a pigment, a chemical compound that only reflects certain wavelengths of visible light and only absorbs certain others. Look at the majority of leaves. Recall ROYGBIV:

chlorophyll absorbs light energy of the red and blue wavelengths, and reflects the green (note: this is ROYGBIV backwards).

Chlorophyll absorbs red and blue light wavelengths with incredible efficiency, but reflects the wavelengths in the greenish hue. Could this be any more apparent? Imagine if, instead, a plant pigment was really good at absorbing all the colors of the visible light spectrum except indigo. The world would pulsate with blue-purple leaves rather than green ones since the pigment would be absorbing all the wavelengths except the indigo ones, which it would reflect . Psychedelic.

There are also accessory pigments in the plant cell that absorb other wavelengths of light energy; some are important antioxidants, which is why there is a huge marketing push of colorful fruits and vegetables in every possible edible or cosmetic product. (A note to all of us consumers: Duh! Eat a diverse selection of fruits and veggies and don’t put stuff on your body that’s filled with synthetic chemicals. And preferably not from a disposable plastic container or filled with artificial colors — both dead giveaways a product is not the best for you or the planet, which is really one and the same.)

a plant cell. love these things. forget the jumbled words, just check out the four green-colored chloroplasts.

So chlorophyll’s a plant pigment. It’s produced in an organelle within the plant cell called a chloroplast. “Chloroplast” comes from the Greek chloros = “green” + plastis = “the one who forms”, which seems it could

equally refer to pot growers and capitalists as well. Humans and other animals don’t have chloroplasts — we are not autotrophs and are incapable of making our own food. As I sometimes ask the kiddos at the Botanical Garden, “Can you lie in this meadow in the sun and get a stomach full of candy in two hours?” No, humans have to kill (I refrain from mentioning this part). Next time you see someone wearing a t-shirt or carrying a canvas bag boasting, “I’m so green,” ask them if they can make their own chlorophyll. Probably not.

Photosynthesis is the chemical  process that makes a plant “full of Halloween candy,” transforming water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and sugars, driven by the capture of light energy by chlorophyll. This is the basis of almost all food webs on Earth. It’s the foundation of the P. andromedea-pine-fungus relationship too, only in this case the plant is a parasite and thus doesn’t have to work nearly as hard: It grows two-feet-tall and successfully flowers, fruits, and goes to seed by leeching off its nearby confer and fungal associates and stealing sugars that the pine produced through the energetically-demanding process of photosynthesis.

I know it’s “just” nature, and I’m theoretically loathe to anthropomorphize fine-tuned ecological relations, but I wish I could be this resourceful!

a five-chambered fruit

can you see the little hairs? i'm guessing those amber-colored parts are leaves, given their placement on the stem below the pedicels (the stem of the individual flowers that attaches to the main stem).

in the shadow of a neighboring pine, pinedrops' literal sugar daddy

Back on the trail, pack on the back, spirits back in tact by a parasite.

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Dust: Hard Attack (1972)

Dust is one of those relatively obscure, short-lived bands that come up every so often in “proto-metal” lists. Proto-metal? One of my favorite genres, however loosely articulated. Before there was “heavy,” there was “proto” –  the original, the primitive, the

an album for battle, surely

practice runs and experiments. Though I tend to think of it as the heavy shit that came after the acid-laden depths of Jefferson Airplane and before the all out assault of Judas Priest, later NWOBHM bands, and thrash, this isn’t entirely true; bands like Blue Cheer, Deep Purple, and Iron Butterfly, all “proto-metal” stalwarts, played concurrently with psychedelic bands in the late ‘60s. But proto-metal feels like a transition, melding kaleidoscopic distortion with blues-inspired riffage, hinting at the low intensity of what would become doom and stoner metal. And as any journalist or composer or ecologist knows, the greatest vitality tends to reside among the transitions, along the edges.

Formed in New York in 1968, Dust was a trio composed of Richie Wise on guitar and vocals, and two teenagers, Kenny Aaronson killing it on bass and Marc Bell destroying the drums. Though they left only two albums — Dust in 1971 and Hard Attack a year later — all the musicians went on to other projects: Wise and their lyricist/manager Kenny Kerner worked in production with Kiss; Aaronson became a session musician and toured with Joan Jett and Billy Idol, among others; and Marc Bell, well, he became Marky Ramone in 1978, and today is the only living member of the longest-running Ramones lineup. Both albums were released on the now-defunct Kama Sutra Records.

Hard Attack‘s strongest point is its dynamism. All songs are within the classic rock rubric, but showcase the incredible diversity of styles in that giant genre. Every track is distinguishable from the other. Sure, it’s easy to pick out formulas on the album, but Dust plays around with them so that, ultimately, none define it.

three talented dudes *from metalmanics.com*

Pull Away, So Many Times The perfect post break-up anthem. The first 30 seconds suggest a slow ballad, with woefully strummed acoustic chords backing a story of desperate and lost love: “I know it’s over/We could never make it/So I guess I’ll just pull away.” But the sappy shit ends there. In comes electric guitar with staccato chords and bucking basslines propelled like an

From "I Been Thinkin'": "Here I sit/Like a proud young father/Sittin' alone/In the mornin' sun/Wastin' my time/Playin' with the flowers/Too many years of trouble, girl/And not enough fun"

impassioned heart, together imploring you to move on while still allowing you to be righteously pissed off. There’s a lot of uncertainty (“Oooh, I couldn’t live without ya”) bolstered by that bouncing bass, followed by charging ahead fearlessness (“Oooh, ooh, I’m ’bout to try”), all driven home by decisive guitar licks. It’s classic ’70s hard rock. There’s a sweet little bridge where the acoustic comes back in before the lead guitar breakdown for the last :50 seconds. “Pull Away So Many Times” is easy to dance to and raise your spirits.

Walk in the Soft Rain I awoke with this song in my head for weeks, mentally hearing every downstrum and drumfill before I was coherent enough to open my crusty eyelids upon yet another brand new day. This was fun at first, but like any all-consuming love, it started feeling destructive. When it was still relentless while I camped on the banks of the John Muir Trail, I knew “Walk in the Soft Rain” and I had to call it quits.

But a month previous, I was on an Air Canada flight from Montreal to SFO going through every Jethro Tull song on my iPod (from This Was to Crest of a Knave) determined to find out of which Tull song it indelibly reminded me. And I found it, or I found at least a couple, all from their third and best album, Benefit (Island, 1970). Not to argue Dust ripped them off, though Benefit was released two years prior to Dust; sometimes it seems there’s only so much that can be done with rock music, and melodic suggestion is inevitable.

“Walk in the Soft Rain” begins with a friendly chugging — you can almost see someone playing their acoustic and doing that unselfconscious chicken-neck thing. It sounds basic — they’re using either open or inverted chords (I think) on the high strings, as well as fiddling with an

From "Walk in the Soft Rain": "They say the day is lonely/so totally blue/It calls out for us only/but mainly for you/A walk in the soft rain alone/a walk and then everything's gone"

open D suspended, both lending lots of sunshine and eminent possibility. The first “Whoa, Tull!” part is the lick at 1:14, a simple bluesy pull-off and smooth bend; I don’t know if it’s simply the guitar tone or what, but I can’t help but hear the punctuated, pre-chorus lead from “With You There to Help Me” off Benefit. The second “Tull!” part is the 15 second chord progression, the first one at 1:35, that ascends up the neck and then halfway back down again. Though definitely not identical, it is super reminiscent of the “one step forward, two steps back” progression lagging its way up the neck at 1:09 on “Nothing to Say.” And then, still on Benefit, the descending triplets at the beginning of “To Cry You a Song” and the post-chorus lick at 1:01 on “Teacher” both possess the same feeling: eternal hippie heaviness. And to think, I scoffed when my friend — who’s been making fun of me for loving Jethro Tull (and for wearing Cliff Burton-inspired bell bottoms) for years — made the initial comparison.

This song is one of my favorites on the album in its own right, though. I especially love the crystally drums, the sound of sunlight streaming through a beaded curtain, diffused by an afternoon cloud of pot smoke. And I don’t especially care for beaded curtains or pot smoke. It all begs for a meadow to run through.

Thusly Spoken As with almost all tracks on Hard Attack, “Thusly Spoken” is proof that emphasis was on “proto” rather than “metal” when that moniker was tagged on Dust. Excessively dramatic, this song. So maudlin, with its loungy violins and piano straight out of a hotel lobby bar. It’s ostentatious, like old wealth, or zombie debutantes still swirling their circa 1983 peach and baby blue gowns at a cotillion, the chandelier falling into the middle of the dance floor and the rotten living dead paying no head.

the first album, self-titled

Still I wonder, how can Dust create a sound so gaudy and gushy yet simultaneously so hard on the soul? Part of it, aside from the general languidness, is the electric organ coming in after the first couple verses, and also the lyrics, which seem to be about a party in hell (or hell on earth?). They do a good job conjuring Pink Floyd with this one.

These first three songs happen to be my three favorites. Later in the album, “I’ve Been Thinkin’” and “How Many Horses” bring in a country-rock twang, the thick syrup of slide guitar, the latter song complete with a gorgeously whiny solo reminiscent of George Harrison. “Suicide” goes through all the fatal options (including standing in the rain with an electric guitar), but with drums harder than the world on your back and a solo that’s frantically all over the neck, there’s no bullshit. Post-”Suicide” is a sweet 25-second flamenco-inspired ditty, called “Entrances” even though it’s the goodbye track.

I have a feeling Dust’s other album, their self-titled 1971 debut, is at least as good and possibly way heavier than Hard Attack. This post from The Ripple Effect (“the best music you’re not listening to”) compares their song “From a Dry Camel” to Sabbath and calls it “massively mentally distorted.” Sounds about….awesome. Oh Dust, I just can’t pull away, so many times….

***Special thanks to Metalcakes for sending me all the tracks! Go make some cupcakes.***


 

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Acid Casualties: Claviceps purpurea and the Salem Witch Trials

Magic Circle by John William Waterhouse, 1886.

Imagine eating a bowl of Cherrios and frying balls as though you’d dropped a half dozen hits of Orange Sunshine. Then murdering 20 people you know, leaving eight others to die, and incarcerating scores of women and men. Talk about a bummer trip.

According to a widely held argument, the Salem Witch Trials were caused by the effects of a fungus that infects grain and produces LSD-like hallucinations, among a ton of other spazzy symptoms. Is this true? Did a tiny mold begin a human-hunting frenzy that’s become one of the favorite fucked up stories of American colonial history?

A few of the Bay Area Plant People (BAPP)

crew have come together for a united post.

For more spooky plant/death posts, check out:

Dirty Girl Gardening
Plantgasm

The conditions were ripe in 1691 in eastern Massachusetts for the growth of Claviceps purpurea, the most common species of ergot fungi. Diaries of Salem townsfolk recorded a warm, wet spring and summer, and most of the accusers resided in the lowland part of the village characterized by swampy meadows. Many fungi rely on water to distribute their spores, and C. purpurea is no exception. The finger-pointing and ensuing witchhunt began in January 1692, the hysteria tapered off by the dry summer, and further arrests were formally prohibited by Governor’s orders on October 29. Rye, ergot’s most common host grass, was the staple crop in Salem.

Though hardly comparable to hanging innocent neighbors, the manner in which ergot parasites rye and other cereal grasses, such as barley and wheat, is a ecological tale of horrific invasion:

  • An ergot spore mimics a pollen grain, landing on the stigma of an open grass flower.
  • did this cause the Salem Witch Trials? *from www.apsnet.org*

    Where pollen would normally form a pollen tube leading to the ovary at the base of the flower, the ergot spore germinates into its vegetative (non-”mushroom”) body, called a mycelium. Still proliferating, the mycelium attacks and pillages the ovary.

  • A soft white tissue called “sphacelia” results, producing a sticky secretion known as honeydew. The golden  honeydew tends to drop out of the flowers onto the ground, where it is dispersed by insects that appreciate its high sugar content. It contains millions of asexual spores.
  • The sphacelia turns into a dry, hard, violet-black sclerotium inside the rye husk and flower. Eventually, it falls to the ground, fruiting once it rains. Thus ushers in the second part of the fungal reproductive cycle, as sexual spores form and are perfectly timed to be released when the rye grasses flower again.

Ergot contains over 40 alkaloids, some which, once the fungus is milled with the grain and into the food system, can contribute to an unappealing slew of symptoms. Many are categorized as convulsive: seizures, spasms, nausea, vomiting, hallucinations,

germinated schleroium, majorly magnified *from www.apsnet.org*

irrational behavior, painful burning sensations in limbs, strong uterine contractions (in the Middle Ages, measured doses were used medicinally to induce abortions), mania, and psychosis. Other symptoms are gangrenous, and can cause the loss of limbs or death. The term “ergotism” was coined tin the mid-19th century, though cases were common in medieval times among the poor. This was when the disease was known as “St. Anthony’s Fire”

"Tollund Man", from 4th century BC, may have been ritually poisoned by ergot

named after the monks of the Order of St. Anthony in southeastern France who were notably successful at treating the curious sickness.

Significant ergotism epidemics occurred into the 19th century, though aside from its debated role in the witch trials, the most intriguing story of its ingestion involves the “bog bodies” — human corpses, circa the Iron Age, that were naturally preserved in the peat swamps of northern Europe. Since their internal organs were essentially mummified, it allowed archaeologists to check out the contents of their stomachs, and what did they find? Cereal grains infected with ergot, which appeared to have been force fed to them, the result of ritual human sacrifice.

LSD was first synthesized from ergotamine

Ergot is such a psychoactive fungus that one of its alkaloids – ergotamine — was the source from which Albert Hoffman synthesized lysergic acid, a main chemical constituent of LSD, in 1938.

Is this what happened in Salem? Were the townsfolk struck with St. Anthony’s Fire, bad tripping on a fungal parasite?

The accusations began in January 1692, when 11-year-old Abigail Williams and her 9-year-old cousin, Betty Parris, fell into convulsive, psychotic fits. Soon, other young girls became “afflicted” and pointed fingers at several people — both women and men, many the typical “outcasts” but some prominent community do-gooders, too. Hysteria ensued, as superstition, rumor-spreading, and conformism trumped the intelligence and humanity of the accusing villagers. By the spring of 1693, 19 “witches” had been hung, one crushed to death by stones, and at least five perished in jail.

The “ergot-contaminated rye” hypothesis was put forth in 1976. While a college senior named Linnda Caporael was working on a paper about how women are capable of being as sinful as men, she connected the unexplained hallucinations of the Salem accusers with cases she’d read about ergot poisoning years previous. Caporael said though she believes ergotism indeed initiated the hysteria, by the summer of 1692 the mass hysteria was more likely based on fabrication and the momentum of public castigation than fungus-infested grain.

Some historians don’t think ergot had anything to do with the shameful event. Salem was already a quarrelsome place, with feuds between families dividing community members and loyalties. And if the rye crop had indeed been tainted, wouldn’t the symptoms have occurred by households, not among dispersed individuals? Others have suggested a different epidemic, one of the bird-borne encephalitis lethargica, a disease affecting the brain and attacking the neurological system. Then there’s the simple power of suggestion, as supposedly the village doctor had mentioned witchcraft, and that of the desire for attention on the part of the nine girls involved in the accusations. Or how about the fact Massachusetts’ colonists were completely repressed, fearful of God’s wrath, and suspicious of anything vaguely nonconformist (while originally fleeing religious persecution in Europe, of course, and concurrently ripping the Native American cultures to shreds)?

Maybe Claviceps purpurea wasn’t responsible for this smear on American history, or maybe it was. But a bunch of Bible thumpers under the influence of a fungus — from which would derive an illegal hallucinogen that itself helped propel a cultural

"Examination of a Witch" by T.H. Matteson, 1853

and secular revolution 275 years later — who killed over 20 people is a heavy Halloween tale. The proposal a tiny organism could cause

"Sarah Good, Hanged, July 19,1692"

community-wide social panic and murder is spookier than any witch, as is the capacity of humans for uncritical thinking and injustice.

Could this happen today, three centuries later? Ergot poisoning? Probably not — it is now quite rare because rye harvests are better monitored. Witch hunts, be they literal or metaphorical? Of course. This Halloween marks the 20th anniversary of the proclamation of the “witches’ ” innocence by Massachusetts Governor Jane Swift. Over 300 years later, we may know not to eat ergot-infected rye, but have we learned to be better people?


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These naked ladies got knocked up

even the sex kittens of the floral kingdom....

....get tired.

They used to be so taut and new, so fleshy and fragrant. Their arrival on the scene met with flushed “oooohhhhs,” even the most soulless among us paid attention. But now, past their nubility, whole cliques are withered and drooping, barely noticeable in the crowd. Naked ladies — so temporal, such teases.

Last year I wrote a post about Amaryllis belladonna, colloquially known as “naked ladies” for their bare stems (they do have leaves, they’re just not timed with the flowers, coming up instead a few months before in order to harvest the springtime sunshine, which is then stored for the energy-intensive flowering a few months later). Native to South Africa, these blatantly beautiful blossoms thrive on the Mediterranean-climed central coast of Cali, emerging as the summer deepens from July to August. Indeed, there were tons this year – hopefully you managed to capture at least a glimpse and whiff.

bulging fruits with the dead petals still hanging on

naked ladies make future naked ladies, and the world rejoices.

Yet I’d never noticed what happens with Amaryllis belladonna after flowering. If successfully fertilized — and really, what pollinator wouldn’t want to dip deep into a naked lady? — the flower is, of course, followed by a fruit. The fruit has three chambers, which makes sense since the flower has three petals (does it look like the flower has six? Yes, but the outside three petals are actually tepals, which is the term given to sepals — i.e. bud covers — that are viturally indistinguisable from the petals. This is very common in lily species, Lilium.).

The quarter-inch, round seeds are gorgeous, fleshy and dark pink on the outside and a more translucent pink on the interior. Though most of these invasive individuals come up year after year from bulbs, they can also be planted from seed, which increases the genetic variability in the population rather than relying on asexual reproduction, which results in genetically less-viable clones.

shiny seeds, pink pearls

see the baby plant inside? Life: It works.

packaged and almost ready to go

According to gardenguides.com, naked ladies aren’t hard to plant from seed but the seedling can take a long time to flower. They love full sun and well-drained, sandy soil, so pick an appropriate spot (the site also says they prefer “rich” soil. This may be true;  however I’ve always seen them growing in crappy dirt, such as disturbed roadsides, in medians, and neglected lots, which seems to reflect their growing conditions in South Africa where the soil is typically old and depleted, having escaped enrichment from periods of glaciation and volcanism.) Sow the seeds immediately after harvest, about 1/4″-1/2″ down. Keep the soil moist for the seedlings, though after the plants are established, they’re extremely drought-tolerant and, unlike so many naked ladies, are forgiving of neglect.

dead stems, as seen with Toxicodendron diversilobium (aka "poison oak")

If you’re already enjoying a clump or a dozen and don’t care about checking out the pretty fruits, cut back the dead stalks after the flowers have wilted. This is very merciful, ensuring the bulbs don’t expend energy needlessly producing fruits, and can instead hang out underground until sending up their pre-flower leaves in the spring.

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High on High Country Wildflowers

The John Muir Trail is a very sweet place.

So sweet that…..

…..for once my botanizing was superseded by being.

(Yikes, I know. I’m going to try my hardest not to do it again.)

As such, I didn’t take very many photos. And since a field guide would be extraneous weight which would mean less chocolate and salami, that was left in San Francisco. But my favorite sherpa, Mr. Don McCrimmon, did bring his kickass camera (is that an extra lens or are you just happy to see me?) and was very patient about attending to my photo-taking requests/demands whenever a flower would alight from a streamside meadow or boulder strewn slope. Putting our images together, then trying to identify species based on John Muir Laws’ Field Guide to the Sierra Nevada, begets this little post. Hopefully it retains some of the sweetness from the Trail.

Colombines: Aquilegia formosa, or crimson columbine (see left photo), is found throughout the non-desert West, a denizen of seeps, streambeds, and meadows.  Aquilegia pubescens, or alpine columbine (middle and right photos) is endemic to the southern Sierra and grows at high elevations so long as water is available; both times I saw them was around 10,000 feet.  A. formosa is one of the first nectar sources for hummingbirds to appear after the snow, and it provides well, considering its sugar content is twice as high as that of other columbine species. Look at how the flowers hang down and are bright red….both are tell-tale indicators of hummingbird pollination. And the flower tries to protect this mutualistic relationship: At the end of each of the five spurs where the nectar is stored (they’re found at the inverted base of the petals) is a constriction to prevent bees from crawling into them and thieving the concentrated sugar without pollinating the flower. Some cheater bees, though, rip a hole in the spur.

Aquilegia formosa, heads down. *photo by Don McCrimmon*

Aquilegia pubescens, keeping its head up.

I could barely deal with being up here at the top of Mono Creek Pass, much less grow and flower up there with grace like this Aquilegia pubescens *photo by Don McCrimmon*

The characteristics of the dually cream and pale pink A. pubescens, on the other hand, demonstrate its relationship with a different pollinator. Its flowers are upright and light-colored, both of which attract hawkmoths. The U.S. Forest Service has a couple nice photos of this interaction here.

Streamside: After researching so much about Aconitum during a poisonous, witchy plants obsession, I was stoked to see this periwinkle species, A. columbianum, or Western monkshood, growing next to a tiny tributary. The Lilium parvum, or alpine lily, was growing over two-feet tall in the same dollop of meadow. And part of the same big family, Lilium kelleyanum, or Sierra lily, was encountered only a couple of times, both near a river on the edge of a coniferous forest. Both times, it smelled like a proper lily — fearless and ambrosial.

Aconitum columbianum, a hood for high country mini-monks. *photo by Don McCrimmon*

floral fireworks, Lilium parvum *photo by Don McCrimmon*

Lilium kelleyanum, with fireweed in the background. *photo by Don McCrimmon*

Best spot contender: When some friends who’d headed out on the trail about a week before us asked what our favorite place had been, they mentioned the meadow on the other side of Donahue Pass as theirs. This was what awaited hikers at the bottom of a bunch of switchbacks after the first big pass (not including the doozie 4,800 foot climb out of Yosemite Valley). Cluttered with unidentified species of lupine and paintbrush, as well as the flirty white heather (Cassiope mertensiana) lining the small streams criss-crossing around the granite, I could’ve stayed in this spot all day. And I tried, but a thunderstorm threatened on the eastern edge. Alas, we were hiking into the grey rain ten minutes later.

the best meadow: lupines and paintbrush, perfection. *photo by Don McCrimmon*

Snow Algae: But before this wonderland meadow we’d climbed the not-as-hard-as-I’d-anticipated Donahue Pass, where we saw our first instance of snow algae. I’d initially forgotten what was causing September’s remaining ice pockets to look like cherry snowcones, and upon being questioned started pontificating about the presence of iron in the granite below the snow somehow seeping upward. Until I remembered that this was totally wrong, and we had learned about this in my fantastic “Plants and Animals of California” class at City College a couple years ago. My hypothesis wasn’t totally unheard of, though, for according to Wikipedia, snow algae has “puzzled mountain climbers, explorers, and naturalists for thousands of years, some speculating that it was caused by mineral deposits or oxidation products that were leached from rocks.”

it only LOOKS like someone dragged a murder victim through the snow... *photo by Don McCrimmon*

The redness is produced by Chlamydomonas nivalis, a green algae that contains a red carotenoid pigment called astaxanthin. This species, unlike most algae, loves a freezing cold environment. The astaxanthin efficiently absorbs heat, which melts the surrounding snow and provides fresh liquid water for the algae. Ecologically, C. nivalis is important as the foundation of alpine food webs, serving as an important food source for several species, including ciliates, nematodes, and ice worms.

Old friends: The following species were commonly seen along the trail. Ribes cereum, or wax current (left photo) is edible but tasted bland and mealey. The medium-sized shrubs were laden with the quarter-inch berries, which was good to know, just in case any black bears were to throw our bear canisters into a river or ravine. I love how the dried flowers, once a delicate pink, are still hanging on (see photo). The hot fuchsia of Epilobium angustifolium lit up the landscape, and with its elongated, fuzzy stigmas was always fun to check out. After fertilization, the flowers transform into three- to four-inch long capsules, each containing up to 300-400 seeds, making one stem have up to 80,000 total! Epilobium’s common name, fireweed, is appropriate, since its proliferous seeds can kick it underground in the seedbank for years, patiently waiting for a fire to come through and return nutrients to the soil. Than they become the pioneer species in the clean-slate ecosystem, colonizing the bare soil. Wikipedia says they’re a useful plant among humans, as well, used by indigenous Alaskans for many things, including ice cream and as an addition to dog food for its high Vitamin A and C content. Spehenosciadium capitellatum, or ranger buttons, grew about three-feet tall. With its thick, soft umbels, it was so Apiaceae.

swollen ovaries: Ribes cereum fruits

POW! BAM! BANG!: Sphenosciadium capitellatum

check out the split stigmas sticking out of this Epilobium angustifolium

Fungi: Of course, the record amounts of snowfall this year meant there was still a ton of wetness, which means…..? Mushrooms! I’ve yet to venture into mushroom identification territory, and don’t know the slimy ones pictured on the left. Nor did we knowingly come across any species with the great names as seen in the ID book, like “dog vomit slime mold” and “fluted black elfin-saddle”.

But I’m relatively confident these golden orange ones evoking chards of week-old pumpkin are Laetiporus conifericola, commonly called “sulfur shelf” or, my favorite moniker, “quesidillia of the woods”. Indeed, they are reportedly edible and can be prepared like chicken, but mycophiles are cautioned to forage them when young, as older shrooms can make one sick (*disclaimer* I cannot validate their edibility or safety!). As the middle photo demonstrates, individual cluters can get huge, and some have been weighed at over 100 pounds. L. conifericola grows on tree wounds, eventually producing a brown rot that is harmful to the host tree. Both species pictured here are exemplary of doing their fungus thing: working to decompose dead wood.

seething fungus, species unknown. *photo by Don McCrimmon*

so pretty, these Laetiporus conifericola

don't fear the fungus!

Faunal flora: If spending two weeks outdoors wasn’t magical enough already, Pedicularis attollens (little elephant’s head) popped up every so often to add whimsy along the wetter parts of the hike. In addition to the petals that form a up-turned “trunk” and the flared petals below looking like “ears”, check out the dense hairs among the individual flowers and down the stem.

see the "trunks" on this Pedicularis attollens? i'd love a bouquet of these!

Cute flowers: My best guess is that this wintergreen species (see middle photo) is Pyrola asarifolia, part of the Ericaceae family. However, they are known to grown in wet, boggy areas and this solitary one was found trailside among dry pine needles. Regardless, Pyrolas are known for their long pistils extending beyond the petals and their round, basal leaves at the bottom of the stem. Though they produce chlorophyll and can photosynthesize, they are also parasitic on mycelia — the vegetative, underground part of a fungus.

it seems there aren't as many blue flowers as there are other colors, like yellows and pinks: Gentiana calycosa (explorer's gentian) *photo by Don McCrimmon*

lovely color, lovely seed pods: Linum lewisii (Western blue flax). *photo by Don McCrimmon*

this undetermined species of wintergreen prompted a 15-minute break of giddiness. *photo by Don McCrimmon*

Overall, one thing that really hit me during my lazy botanical observations was, most of the time, I was able to recognize these flowers on the family level, if not their genus. With a couple years of practice on the coast, this familiarity could be transferred to a different ecosystem. Quite affirming.

Here’s to the hope these species – and all the others I didn’t stop and document because I was too satisfied with just wandering — successfully go to seed, survive the upcoming Sierran winter (as they are adapted for, after all), and sprout anew. And that they’ll again be appreciated by one or two happy trekkers.

beware the moon....

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